Fire sale? The Kensington-Port Richmond scrapyards are cashing out to developers

The industrial stretch along Lehigh Avenue is being filled up with condos.

Lehigh and Aramingo Ave.

Lehigh and Aramingo Ave.

Sydney Schaefer / Billy Penn
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The industrial strip along the Lehigh Avenue corridor — home to that scrapyard fire of mythological proportions last year — is one condo closer to calling it a night.

While the sale has yet to be finalized, Bruce Paul Auto Parts is the second salvage yard within a year to cash out along this stretch of open land between the suddenly-booming Kensington and Port Richmond neighborhoods. Developers scooping up the 80,000-square-foot parcel have already begun pitching their plans to community groups.

The proposed project — four apartment buildings featuring some commercial space — is still very much in the nascent stages, requiring both zoning variances and community input before it can move forward. But it’s a sign of things to come for the rapidly gentrifying borderlands where long-standing industrial beacons are giving way to the forces of market-rate housing.

Bruce Paul says the jig is up for the junkyard kings in this part of town.

“Anybody that’s working with their hands can’t afford to stay around here anymore,” Paul told Billy Penn. “I’m not gonna put up with my taxes doubling every other year. They’re forcing everybody out. Welcome to Philadelphia.”

Scrapyards, opioids and developers

It’s been a tumultuous year on the strip where Paul’s yard sits. Last summer’s massive inferno at the Philadelphia Metal & Resource Recovery brought increased scrutiny to the cluster of junkyards.

Some neighbors aired grievances about the environmental hazards of such scrapyards existing in close proximity to residential neighborhoods. The multi-million-dollar developments now going up will likely intensify those concerns.

“I work seven days,” Paul said. “They don’t want to see my cranking up the crane on a Sunday.”

The development tide is swelling in tandem with the city’s efforts to clean up the opioid-ravaged neighborhoods around the scrap strip. In January, officials shuttered the last of four homeless encampments that sprung up along the Lehigh trestle and under the bridges. Developers are now rehabbing old factory buildings that crumbled into Kensington’s drug era, which stand as bleak reminders of a neighborhood the city turned its back on for decades.

Throughout the decline, however, scrapyards have been a steadfast presence. After Paul’s closes its gates for good, three auto- and scrap-related businesses will remain along this stretch of Lehigh — including Philadelphia Metal & Resource Exchange.

Last September, a few months after the fire there, owner David Feinberg settled his outstanding code violations with the city for $125,000.

The scrap metal industry has suffered heavy blows in recent years, many tied to the global economy and less to neighborhood development. Feinberg thinks he can survive — but for how long he isn’t sure. “Who knows?” Feinberg said.

‘Things are changing’

While the sale price for his yard has yet to be made public, Paul stands to make a hefty sum.

His former neighbor, Paramount Auto & Truck Sales, sold their larger four-acre parcel at Lehigh and Frankford Avenues for $5 million last year. That property is now being redeveloped into a 155-unit housing development dubbed “Kensington Courts.”

Rachel Pritzker, the developer’s real estate attorney, declined to comment, citing the ongoing review process before the project could be finalized. The developer’s name has not yet been made public.

A project application proposes four detached buildings — predominantly six-story apartment buildings with roof decks on top and commercial space on first floors. With a combined 220 apartment units, the plans also designate space for 132 off-street parking spots, seven electric vehicle charging hubs and nearly 100 bike racks.

Since the parcel is currently zoned for industrial mixed-use projects, developers need a variance, so all the details are subject to change as the registered community groups weigh in.

Pending approval, at least 10 percent of the proposed housing would be classified as affordable based on the regional median income. The units would be offered at a “more affordable rate than currently proposed in the area by previously approved neighboring projects,” Pritzker wrote.

Sean McMonagle, an aide to Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district encompasses the new developments, said his office’s role is limited to facilitating the sometimes dicey conversation between the developers and the community groups.

“Things are changing,” McMonagle said. “That’s for sure.”

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